Iceland's Westfjords are a birder's and nature lover's paradise
Vestfirðir, the Westfjords (West Fjords), Iceland’s most remote region, are home to Látrabjarg (Latrabjarg), one of the world’s largest bird cliffs, and the world’s largest razorbill colony. It is a peninsula in north-western Iceland, connected to the rest of Iceland by a 10 km wide isthmus between Gilsfjörður (Gilsfjordur) and Bitrufjörður (Bitrufjordur).
Iceland's Western Fjords are very mountainous. The long, stunningly beautiful coastline – about half of Iceland’s total shoreline, is indented with dozens of fjords carved by intense glaciation. The shore is infinitely varied, changing with the seasons, lying on the mystical border between different worlds. Seals bask on the rocks, huge colonies of seabirds are seen and the king of the skies, the white-tailed eagle, watching over.
In many ways the Westfjords has remained "a world apart" from the rest of Iceland. The nature there is as wild as it was a hundred years ago – and now there are probably less people. Vibrant birdlife, majestic mountains, deep blue fjords, seals and the arctic fox – as well as the extraordinary natural silence, attract visitors to Westfjords. Hornstrandir Nature Reserve is also located there, a nature paradise at the edge of the Arctic Circle, extremely popular with hikers, mountain bikers and birdwatchers in the short summer.
Except for the central highlands, the Westfjords are the most sparsely populated area of Iceland, and its northernmost part, Hornstrandir, is totally uninhabited. Most visitors to the Westfjords go to West Iceland first, either heading by road for the looping fjord coast or the Strandir shore, or skirting the southern Westfjords after arriving by road or ferry. Whichever route is taken, it presents a striking cross-section of scenery and culture. In addition, there are countless opportunities for boat trips and experiencing the untouched nature.
Látrabjarg Cliffs and Hornstrandir Nature Reserve
At 14 km (8.7 mi) long, the cliffs at Látrabjarg (Latrabjarg), Europe’s most westerly point, are the longest bird cliffs in the North Atlantic Ocean. Látrabjarg is one of the three largest bird cliffs in Iceland; the other two are Hornbjarg and Hælavíkurbjarg (Haelavikurbjarg) in the Hornstrandir Nature Reserve. Látrabjarg is the easiest of the three to visit as a road leads practically to the cliff’s edge. A walking path is provided. The main attraction is the puffin. In few places in Iceland, if any, are the puffins more trusting towards humans. The puffins there are so confident, that if one approaches them quietly and slowly reaches out, it is possible to touch a perched bird without frightening it away. This trust towards humans has been developed over a long period and there is an obvious reason for it: the Látrabjarg cliffs are not harvested.
For a few months every year, this massive 440 metre high cliff becomes alive with the nesting activity of millions of seabirds. The seabird colonies at Látrabjarg are enormous, and they include Stórurð (Storurd), scree beneath the cliff, which is where razorbill colony nests. The puffins, which dig their burrows in topsoil at the cliff’s edge, are not the most numerous species, but they are arguably the most noticeable. Other auks that breed at Látrabjarg, as well as the razorbills, are the Common Guillemot and the Brünnich Guillemot, a high Arctic species that is at its southern breeding limit in Iceland, one of the target birds for any serious birder or birdwatcher.
Towns and Counties
The lack of flat lowlands in the Westfjords makes them unsuitable for agriculture, but good natural harbours in many of the fjords and closeness to fishing grounds are vital for the local economy. The Westfjords population numbers have been steadily declining; currently there are around 7 000 people living in the region. Some rural areas have fast depopulated in the latter half of the 20th century and now a few of the fjords between Reykjanes and Vatnsfjörður (Vatnsfjordur) are uninhabited.
The largest town in the Westfjords is Ísafjörður (Isafjordur) which serves as a center for commerce, administration and transportation in the region. In the county of Ísafjörður, there are six towns or villages where fishing is the main industry, although the service industry has grown considerably and farming is still important in some areas. Barðaströnd (Bardastrond) County is the southern part of the Westfjords and covers the area from the bottom of Gilsfjörður (Gilsfjordur) in the east to Langanes in Arnarfjordur to the west. Many of the islands of Breiðafjörður (Breidafjordur) are part of this area. The islands, now mostly uninhabited, have a rich history and are renowned for their beauty and the variety of their flora and fauna. Relics from life in the other once-thriving outposts can be seen in places such as the now abandoned herring centre of Djúpavík (Djupavik). The settlement of tiny island of Vigur is a place where time seems to stand still.
Dynjandi and the Mountains
An absolute must-see in the Westfjords, is the magnificent Dynjandi waterfall which, from a width of 30 m on the top, fans out to reach 60 m at the bottom in the course of its 100 metre thunderous cascade down the ridged mountainside. Dynjandi is the largest waterfall in the Westfjords.
The steep mountains between Dýrafjörður (Dyrafjordur) and Arnarfjörður (Arnarfjordur), sometimes locally referred to as the Westfjords Alps, are unlike the other mountains in the Westfjords. Most of the other mountains in the Westfjords are table top mountains, totally flat on top. The highest mountain is Mt. Kaldbakur, 1,173 m high.
The Stories Old and New
In olden times, the Westfjords were renowned for wizards and sorcerers, and Hólmavík (Holmavik) hosts an exhibition on witchcraft and witch hunts. When driving through the majestic landscape, fjord after fjord towering above shore and sea, it’s easy to understand how all the tales of witches, trolls and black magic would have emerged in this remote area.
The Cliffhanger Rescue
There are also many stories of heroism in the Westfjords, some not that old. In a freezing storm just before Christmas in 1947, a British trawler, the Dhoon, ran aground off Látrabjarg Cliffs, 70 m away from the shore at “Geldingaskoradalur” where the cliff falls 200 metres straight down to the sea. Rescue mission seemed impossible for anyone to even contemplate. However, 12 brave local farmers decided to abseil down the icy cliff to help the stricken crew. They first lowered themselves down to “Flauganef”, a cliff overhang protruding out from the cliffs at a height of 80 metres. From Flauganef, 4 men continued this cliffhanger rescue, abseiling all the way down and managing to carry the heavy rescue gear about 1 km over icy rocks in the appalling weather. They then managed to shoot a lifeline to the trawler and rescued 12 of the shipwrecked crew. All crew members, some of whom could hardly move due to hypothermia, were eventually brought to safety – hauled by rope up the mostly vertical 200 m high cliff. The rescue team was later specially honoured by the Queen of England for their outstanding heroic feat.
But the story doesn’t end there. The following year, a film maker was commissioned to make a documentary of the Dhoon rescue and most of the actual participants in the Dhoon rescue re-enacted their roles for the film. During the filming near the Látrabjarg cliffs, notification was suddenly received that another British trawler, the Sargon from Grimsby, had run aground in the nearby Patreksfjörður (Patreksfjord). As the film “cast”, the original rescuers, rushed off to save the shipwrecked men of the Sargon, the film director managed to film this real-life rescue of the 6 surviving crew members, and the footage was later included into the documentary about the Dhoon rescue – of which no original film-footage exists. Not surprisingly, when the film, The Great Látrabjarg Sea Rescue, directed by Óscar Gíslason, was shown in 1949, it caused a sensation.